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Authors: Avner Mandelman

the Debba (2010)

BOOK: the Debba (2010)
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To my parents--and to A


Title Page
Part I - Jahilliyehs (The Age of Ignorance)

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Part II - Al Infitar (The Cleaving)

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Part III - Al Dajjal (The False One)

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Part IV - Yawm Al Dinn (Day of Judgment)

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

a cognizant original v5 release october 01 2010


always left their place of birth. When my father was seventeen years old he bought passage on a boat to Yaffo. It was a two-way ticket. The British, who ruled Palestine then, would never have let him enter without it. He did not have an immigration certificate.

I am told he was a quiet, slim youth, strangely intense, and fierce when aroused. My grandfather once had to buy off the head of police after my father had beaten up the son of a rich barrel merchant. The young goy taunted my father and called him a dirty Jew. The taunter was big and fat, and smoked cigarettes. My father, who was half the goy's size, almost killed him with a stick he had grabbed from a lame old charwoman. It took three policemen to tear my father off his victim.

Aunt Rina, who was eight then, claims no one could pry the stick from my father's hand. Finally the chief of police broke my father's thumb with a hammer. They put my father in jail, where he stayed for four days. He was fifteen at the time.

Aunt Rina, who now lives in Toronto, was hopelessly in love with him then. Half the town beauties were. Even now, at the age of sixty-seven, when she speaks of him her eyes light up and her husband, Yitzchak, looks aside or busies himself with a book.

When I asked my father why his thumb was crooked, he said it had bent when he sucked on it, as a baby. My father had beautiful hands and the crooked thumb was glaringly noticeable. Only when I was old enough to talk to my uncle Mordechai as an equal did I learn the true story.

It had cost my grandfather two thousand zloty, a fortune, to get my father out of jail. When my father finally came home he was sick for a month. Wild stories circulated. He had been beaten up. Two of his front teeth were missing. Some said he was raped by the guards, who had been bribed by the rich merchant. These were old Cossacks who remained from the days of the Russian occupation. They were short and thickset and their sexual appetites were legendary.

My father kept to his bed for two weeks. He did not notice anybody. All the time he was in bed he was sharpening a long knife he had made.

My grandfather was in the leather trade, and there were many knives around the house: small knives for trimming fine leather used in ladies' slippers, flat knives for splitting raw leather, and sharp, long blades for cutting through tough hide. My father made a new knife from a saw blade and sharpened it endlessly--no one could make him stop. My grandmother cried and begged him, but he paid her no heed. When she brought him chicken broth, he would sit up in bed, hide the knife under his thigh, and eat. Then he would pull it from under the covers and start all over again.

My grandfather was a tall, husky Jew. He had a thick black beard and testy blue eyes. His one passion was the cards. The only one who could beat him at a card game was my father. When my father lay in bed recuperating, they played cards every night, and talked. My father would not surrender his knife. Each morning, when the shiksa maid peeked through the keyhole, she saw him spitting on the black whetstone, and soon the
srik-srak, srik-srak
sound recommenced.

It was autumn and just before the High Holidays. The atmosphere in town grew tense; there was talk of a pogrom. The Cossacks at the town jail muttered among themselves. All the Jews were nervous.

On the eve of Yom Kippur the rabbi, Reb Itzelle Tuvim, came to the house. Aunt Rina says his face radiated light. To hear her tell it, he was walking on an inch of air. He came in, washed his hands at my grandfather's porcelain basin, and ate a piece of challah. Then he went into my father's room and closed the door behind him.

This was just before the Large Supper, the last meal before the fast, and the yard was teeming with beggars and the needy. The day before, my grandfather had sold a hundred pairs of felt boots to the hetman of the Cossacks, and in celebration my grandmother cooked
for all the town's poor Jews, to fortify them for Kol Nidre, the Yom Kippur eve prayer that annuls all vows.

But the Kol Nidre was delayed. Reb Itzelle remained closeted with my father for three hours. Finally the door to my father's room opened and Reb Itzelle emerged. He was pale, says Aunt Rina, and his hand trembled. In his right hand he held the knife, its blade pointing upward, like a
in Succoth. Wordlessly he laid it down on the cabinet, on which it remained, untouched, all during the Day of Atonement. Then he went to the synagogue and chanted the Kol Nidre. Two and a half years later my father left for Palestine, taking with him all his wooden lasts, his shoe templates, and a few favorite knives. His phylacteries he left behind.

He landed in Yaffo, after an eleven-day sea voyage, on the eve of Purim, 1922. He almost didn't make it. During the landing the rowboat taking him ashore capsized near the Rock of Andromeda and he and two other passengers--another Polish boy (one Paltiel Rubinsky) and an elderly Briton--nearly drowned. The Arab boatman jumped into the churning waves and rescued all three.

I still have a torn copy of the Yaffo biweekly
, carrying a faded photograph of the event. It shows two men: the hero, chief boatman to Messrs. Thos. Cook & Son, a broad-shouldered young swain in a striped bathing suit with slightly effeminate lips, squinting shyly into the camera, and on his left a portly Briton, lank hair hiding his eyes and nose, clasping his rescuer's reluctant wrist. To the right, a boat's bow intrudes into the picture; a faint line at its edge may be an oar. Of the two young Jews there is no sign. This was a mere ten months after the May Day riots in Yaffo, at which twenty-one Jews (among whom were two full-fledged poets) were slaughtered. Showing disembarking Jews on the front page could have sparked fresh riots.

The Arab hero can be seen clearly in the photograph, though his name is smudged by a yellow stain; but the Briton is clearly identified. He is Sir Geoffrey Mewlness, publisher of the London
, on pilgrimage to the Holy Land for his health. The article notes that upon his return to London, Sir Geoffrey thanked the directors of Thos. Cook & Son in person for his rescue, and sent a hundred gold sovereigns to the Yaffo boatman in gratitude, and a gold watch to each of his boat-mates, in memory of the miracle that had befallen them in the land of the Bible. Both watches were expertly inscribed with the Hebrew prayer of thanks, HaGommel, in Rashi script.

Paltiel Rubinsky (who later changed his name to Rubin) right away gave his watch to a Yemenite actress. My father, after hanging on to his for three years, at last sold it in 1925 for fifty gold pounds to his landlord, a Mr. Efraim Glantz, with whom he and Paltiel Rubin had taken rooms in Tel Aviv the day after their arrival. With this money my father opened his cobblery and shoe store on Herzl Street, taking in Paltiel Rubin as a salesman, and in that same store he worked on and off throughout the Events of 1936-39, before finally closing it in 1946, as he began rising in the ranks of the Haganah, the budding Jewish resistance, and later, in the Israeli Army. But a day after Ben-Gurion signed the Armistice agreement in 1949, my father left the army and went straight back to that same store, where, taking neither helpers (Paltiel was dead then) nor vacations, he kept cobbling heels and selling sandals, until the day of his murder.


(The Age of Ignorance)


in 1977, seven years after I had last seen him, that I learned of my father's murder. When the phone rang I half expected to hear Aunt Rina's voice, inviting me to the Passover seder. Instead I heard the line crackle and a faint voice said, "Starkman? David Starkman?"

In an instant I knew.
I croaked in Hebrew--yes.

"This is Ya'akov Gelber. I am an attorney in Tel Aviv--"

"My father," I said.

"I am afraid so."

Perspiration broke out on my chin as Mr. Gelber said without preliminaries that my father had died. "You of course have my most profound sympathies," he said in Hebrew, "but there are some ... urgent matters to discuss, or else I would not call you on the holiday."

It was only April but the Toronto weather was freakishly hot and my cheap one-room apartment on Spadina Avenue was baking in the heat. My sole white shirt, which I had put on for an evening out with Jenny, was soaking with sweat, as Jenny kept massaging my neck, the back of my head, the veins at my temples. I again had a migraine after last night's black dreams. It often hit me when evening fell, and so we rarely went out. I had hoped tonight would be better, but it wasn't. Why Jenny was willing to put up with it I didn't know. As her fingers kept battling the pain, I dabbed at my face with a dish towel and tried to concentrate on Mr. Gelber's voice, which was explaining in my ear how someone had broken into my father's shoe store the previous night while he was taking inventory, and following the robbery (an unsuccessful attempt, really, since nothing of value was taken), my father was stabbed in the heart with one of his own knives--the one used for cutting soles. "It was probably an Arab robber," Mr. Gelber said, his voice neutral, "because the body was also mutilated. He never had a chance to use the telephone--you of course knew he had a telephone in his store."

"No." I didn't.

Mr. Gelber began to explain at length how my mother, three years ago--a mere month before her death--had made my father install a telephone in the store. "Six months it took her to get to the right people, to speed up installation--six months! Here he was, Isser Starkman, the hero of the Castel, the slayer of Abu Jalood, alone in the store--without a telephone, and his heart not strong--and nobody cares! Can you imagine? Finally Gershonovitz himself intervened. Gershonovitz! It's a shame, a bloody shame, that she had to go to this big shot for such a thing. Two hours she had to wait in his office! Two hours! Abase herself before that scum, may she rest in peace! And she and your father not even living together anymore." Mr. Gelber paused. "But I am sure you know all that."

I didn't. "Inventory," I repeated. A tickling started in my nose and the room rotated in a semicircle around me.

Jenny whispered fiercely that I should lie down and rest, not talk on the phone, but I waved her away and tried to concentrate on Mr. Gelber's voice, which, calmer now, was speaking with legalistic precision about the funeral, the Kaddish prayer, the reading of the will, and some obscure points regarding national insurance and a pension from Germany for loss of schooling. "And there are a few other matters that we have to discuss. Really small, minor matters."

"What matters?"

Mr. Gelber clicked his tongue. "Not over an open phone line."

This was a military expression I hadn't heard for more than ten years. "Mutilated how?" The tickling in my nose had descended into my throat and I found it difficult to pronounce the Hebrew words.

Mr. Gelber snapped. "Like what the Arabs did in thirty-six, in forty-eight, nu. What they did to Rubin, and to all the others."

"To Paltiel? What they did to Paltiel Rubin? In Yaffo?"

"Yes, yes!" Mr. Gelber shouted. "Yes."

He went on, about my uncle Mordechai, or perhaps the police, but the line burst into a fury of crackles and hisses like a tank radio when a jet swoops low overhead and I couldn't make out a word. I dabbed at my chin, at my throat. The towel was soaking wet.

"So you will come to the funeral?" Mr. Gelber asked. "It must be before Saturday, you understand."

I said I understood and that I of course would come to the funeral. "Tonight. I will leave tonight."

"Call me the moment you land."

I wrote down Mr. Gelber's home phone, repeating his words in halting Hebrew.

Mr. Gelber sensed my unease with the language and switched to English. "The will, it must be filed before the end of the week. This is most important."

Yes, I said numbly in English. I understood. I'd leave tonight.

He spoke further about arrangements for paying the burial society (my uncle Mordechai, the other surviving relative, had said he would pay the two thousand shekels for the burial and I could pay him half later), where we would sit shivah (probably at my uncle Mordechai's home in Tveriah), and a few other matters that by now have completely escaped my memory. All I remember is rummaging in my pocket for a handkerchief to wipe my face, my cheeks, my eyes. My migraine had coalesced into an almost surreal pain, midway between my skull and nose.

Jenny's hands stopped mid-movement. "Leave for where?"

I hung up. "My father is dead," I said. Then I sat down and loosened my tie. We were supposed to go to a film festival after supper, before my migraine hit. "I have to go to Israel, to the funeral."

"Oh, I'm so--" Jenny began, then her face lost all color. "Don't--don't let them grab you for the army," she stammered. "Tell them you no longer live there--"

"I'm leaving tonight," I repeated, "if I can get a seat. It's a thirteen-hour flight."

There was a long pause.

I said, "I have to." I massaged my temples, shutting my eyes tight.

Jenny said in a quavering voice. "You want to--make love first, before you go? To relieve the migraine?" It often did, though I didn't like what it made me feel afterward, toward Jenny; the dangerous gratitude.

I went into the bathroom and washed my face. When I came out I called Aunt Rina. She wasn't really my aunt, only a cousin of my father; Yitzchak Kramer, her husband, was another cousin, once removed. I called them uncle and aunt because in Canada they were the only family I had.

I told Aunt Rina that my father had just died.

"Who killed him?" she said straight off. "The Arab?" Then she began to sob. Behind her I could hear Uncle Yitzchak muttering.

"He was stabbed by a burglar," I said. "Right in the store. He was working late."

"He was too young," said Aunt Rina, "for a Starkman. Only seventy-one. His friend, this Paltiel, he could have been what, now? Sixty-eight? Oh, God in heaven! Isser!"

Aunt Rina's crying turned into a choking sound.

"What Arab?" I asked.

Uncle Yitzchak's voice came on the phone. "It's a terrible thing, what just happened, I heard on the other line. I am telling you! Terrible! Did they catch him?"

"I don't know. It was a burglary." I wiped my eyes. I didn't feel anything inside, but oily tears kept streaming down my cheeks.

Behind me Jenny had begun to massage my back with her soft, warm hands.

Uncle Yitzchak said, "You going for the funeral?"

"Yes, maybe tonight."

He said, "You need money? You got money for the ticket?"

"Yes, I think so." I would have to borrow it from Jenny, who had just gotten her paycheck the week before.

There was silence on the line. Then Uncle Yitzchak said in a low voice, "You leave her behind, you hear? The shiksa. Don't you cause your father more grief."

What grief? My father was dead.

"Listen to me," said Uncle Yitzchak. "Listen--"

"No. It's okay. I am going alone."

Uncle Yitzchak said, "Don't be mad at me, Duvidl, but sometimes you gotta say something, so--"

"Sure," I said. Jenny had meanwhile begun to massage my shoulder blades. I tried to squirm away, but my body seemed to have developed self-will, as it always had, near her.

Aunt Rina came on the line, her voice breaking. "Give everybody our regards. And tell your uncle Mordechai we are sorry to hear the terrible news. You want to come here maybe for supper before you go?" I had forgotten this was the night of the second seder. Aunt Rina didn't say whether I could bring Jenny. The last time I had brought her along it had not been a success.

"No," I said. "Thank you. I'm flying tonight. I'll eat on the plane. I'll call you when I return."

After I hung up I saw that Jenny had begun to peel off her skirt. "Come," she whispered, "one last time before you go ... so you remember ..."

"Don't worry," I snapped. "I'll be back in a week."

I had met Jenny Sowa at a reading at the Harbourfront Authors Festival. She was a thin blonde with dark luminous eyes who had just won the Governor General's prize for a book describing in percussive rhymes the travails of runaway girls in a massage parlor on Yonge Street where she had conducted clandestine research. I had come to hear an old Hebrew poet passing through Toronto read his work in English translation. But that reading was canceled (the man had passed away the night before), and so I stayed to hear whoever was next. It was Jenny. The hall filled with overly-made-up young girls who cheered every stanza, but there were also some sullen men in tight pants, probably the parlor owners. Two marched up to the podium and began to berate her, snarling in her face. One raised his hand as if to slap her and it was then I heard her voice, clear and vibrant as in the reading, saying that they'd better be careful, because her boyfriend was watching.

"A whore like you--boyfriend?" one man snarled. "Where?"

To my astonishment she pointed to me. I had no idea why she chose me; or perhaps I had begun to rise already.

I stood up fully, half in surprise, half not. "Yes," I said.

And that's how we met.

She was a Polish Canadian shiksa and my aunt Rina was aghast when she heard from a friend about us living together.

"Once or twice, nu," she said, rolling her fingers in anguish. "But to live together? Like husband and wife?"

"So?" I said.

"Your grandfather would roll in his grave." She wept. "And a Polack, too!"

What did being Polish have to do with it? "Let him roll! I love her."

I was amazed to hear myself, speaking of love, just like that.

"You know what the Polacks did to your grandfather?" Uncle Yitzchak asked. "How they helped Hitler? I can give you books, so you can see for yourself. With pictures."

"She was born here," I shouted. "Right here in Canada. In Ottawa."

"A Polack is a Polack," Uncle Yitzchak said. "Let me tell you--"

But I didn't let him finish. I told him she was talented, and good, that she loved me, and I loved her, too--most of which was true. I also said that if they wanted to see me again, I didn't want to hear one word--not a single word--against the woman I loved.

What else could I say? That love was the last thing I wanted? That in the place I had run away from, love had to be paid for with killings?

I said a few other things I've forgotten by now. Somehow we reconciled; then we had tea, with almond cookies. They rarely mentioned her again.

Jenny was in the literary activism business. She appeared on cable TV on the community channel, debating Canadian Unity. She led a didactic-poetry workshop at the George Brown Community College. Every now and then she published a book of rhythmic poems that she then read out loud at the University, or at the Harbourfront Festival, before a crowd of fans who seemed to know her from her days of research.

I don't know why I went to these things. I myself never wrote anything. That is, every now and then I scribbled something very late at night, but in the morning I tore it into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet: detailed nightmares of takedowns I had done--in some the dead now evaded me; in others they didn't. I had plenty of these dreams after I left Israel, almost every night. I didn't want to write them down, but when my defenses were weak, I couldn't resist. After a while it turned into a real problem, because I often had to scribble for more than two hours to get the thing completely out, so I was always late for work and couldn't keep a job. Finally Uncle Yitzchak took me in, in his small bakery on College Street. I helped unload the sacks of flour, load the unbaked loaves into the roaring oven, then pull the steaming bread out and range it on the floury shelves. I didn't mind the heat. This was the best part: afterward I slept like a corpse myself and hardly dreamed at all. But Uncle Yitzchak couldn't pay me much, so after seven years in Canada I still had no money. I was really lucky I found Jenny. She had a job; she loved me. She tolerated my migraines, she even helped me fight my compulsion.

The first time she found my scribblings she flew into a crying fit. "This is garbage! Pure garbage! Dead Arabs and killings and nightmares and shit!"

"I know," I said weakly. "That's why I ..."

But before I finished she had begun to tear the pages up. "Don't waste your health on this crap. Take it from me. I am in the business. I know."

I knew that, too; but I couldn't help it. It just kept coming out. Sometimes I wrote ten, twelve pages at night, and then I hid them, in my half-sleep. You would think that in such a tiny apartment there would be no more hiding places; but in the morning, my head splitting, I sometimes wasted a whole hour trying to find that one last page.

Why I did it I don't know. It was one of those crazy compulsions, like biting on your nails, or scraping the paint off the wall and eating it. But Jenny was really good about it. Together we hunted--on all fours, sometimes. When we found the last rogue page under the entrance mat, inside the lamp shade, wherever, she would take my head between her hands and tell me not to worry. One day I'd forget all about the horrible place I had come from. "I can't wait," she told me.

I couldn't either; but now, this.

While Jenny took her turn in the bathroom I called El Al, put my name on the standby list (all flights were full), dressed (my frayed jeans for the plane and a sweater, in case it got cold: after seven years in Canada I still had not gotten used to the cold weather), threw some underwear and my shaving kit into my old army backpack, and left Jenny crying at the door, her hair framed by milky light.

BOOK: the Debba (2010)
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